The United States and Russia are working “around the clock” to try to strike a deal to reduce violence and improve access to humanitarian help in Syria, President Barack Obama said Sunday, but added that the US was skeptical it would work.
Obama, speaking on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit in China, said the US and Russia still have “grave differences” about what’s needed to end Syria’s civil war and which opposition groups are legitimate targets for the US and Russian militaries. But he said “it is worth trying” to secure an agreement nonetheless.
“We’re not there yet,” Obama said. “I think it’s premature for us to say there’s a clear path forward, but there’s the possibility at least for us to make some progress.”
Obama’s comments came as US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov are deep in talks over a deal to boost US and Russian military cooperation to fight the Islamic State group and other extremists in Syria — a step Moscow has long sought. The emerging deal is expected to also include provisions to ensure aid can reach besieged areas of Syria and steps to prevent Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government from bombing areas where US-backed rebels are operating.
Though negotiators have been hopeful a deal could come together while world leaders are gathered in Hangzhou for the G20, that optimism has been tempered by the failure of previous ceasefire deals to hold. The US has long been wary of increasing military coordination with Russia in Syria’s civil war because it says Russia continues striking moderate, US-backed opposition groups in a bid to prop up Assad. The US wants Russia to focus exclusively on IS and al-Qaida-linked groups.
“These are difficult negotiations,” Obama said. He added later: “If we do not get some buy-in from the Russians on reducing the violence and easing the humanitarian crisis, then it’s difficult to see how we get to the next phase.”
Discussions about the intractable Syria conflict and the related fight against IS have been a major focus as world leaders gather for the G20, which brings together the world’s major economies. Obama, who met first Sunday with new British Prime Minister Theresa May, also planned to discuss Syria when he meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, their first sit-down since the summer’s failed coup in Turkey.
The attempted overthrow in Turkey has accelerated the deterioration in the relationship between Turkey and the United States. It led to Turkish accusations of US involvement, and those tensions have been aggravated by growing clashes between Turkish forces and US-backed Syrian Kurds.
The Obama administration has expressed concerns about Erdogan’s crackdown on the press and, in the weeks since the coup, mass firings of teachers, military personnel and others accused of associating with the opposition.
The US has also expressed concern about Turkey’s recent operations across its border into Syria. The Pentagon has backed the incursions, but said they should only be aimed at IS fighters. Turkey has used the operations to push back Syrian Kurds it accuses of seeking to claim more territory.
For the US, the dispute is a reminder of its increasing entanglement in the long-standing local rivalries and conflicts exposed by Syria’s civil war.
Since the failed coup, the US has been alarmed by Turkey’s diplomatic flirtations with Russia, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s patron, and apparent softening of its tone about the need for Assad to be excluded from a political transition. At the same time, the US continues to work toward an agreement with Russia to cooperate more closely in the fight against IS in Syria.
In his first meeting with May since she took office in Britain, Obama sought to demonstrate American solidarity with the UK amid the tumult over its decision to leave the European Union. He and May both said their countries would continue an ambitious trade agenda together, though Obama conceded that Britain’s first task was to figure out its new trade relationship with its EU neighbors.
Obama’s previous suggestions that the US would prioritize ongoing US-EU trade talks over a one-on-one deal with Britain rankled London, but Obama said it was never intended to be a punishment.
“The bottom line is we don’t have a stronger partner in the world than the United Kingdom,” Obama said. “And despite the turbulence of the political events over the last several months, we have every intention of making sure that continues.”
May, echoing Obama’s commitment to continue close cooperation with the US on economic and security issues, sought to put to bed any notion that the U.K. would hold another referendum or reverse course on the EU exit, or Brexit.
“The UK will indeed be leaving the European Union,” she said.